With his sixth historical espionage novel, Alan Furst has been hailed by reviewers as worthy of comparison to John le Carré as a master of spy fiction. All taking place in Western and Central Europe in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Furst’s novels depict the efforts of ordinary citizens thrown into the chaos created by Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Russia. His heroes realize they can do little to impede the progress of evil, yet they must engage in symbolic gestures to retain their self-respect. Written in a spare style and strongly evocative of its time and place,Kingdom of Shadows, as the title suggests, looks at the murky morality of a Europe on the brink of its second world war.
Nicholas Morath is often described in the Paris press as a Hungarian playboy, a characterization that embarrasses his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a diplomat at the Hungarian legation in Paris. A cavalry lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, the forty-four-year-old Morath has seen enough horror. He is perfectly willing to work at Agence Courtmain, the advertising agency he co-owns, hobnob with fellow exiles of aristocratic background, go to nightclubs and restaurants, and spend as much time as possible with Cara, his lover. Cara is a member of one of the wealthiest families in Buenos Aires; she has also posed in the nude for Pablo Picasso and socializes with the artistic and the rich on the Riviera.
Uncle Janos is appalled by the changes underway in Europe because of Hitler and wants to deter them as much as possible. More importantly, he wants to keep the Arrow Cross, a right-wing group friendly to the Nazis, from gaining political power in Hungary. Thus, he sends Morath on missions throughout Central Europe to raise money for the pro-democracy forces in their native country and smuggle it back into France. At least on these missions, Morath understands his function. He is as much in the dark as the reader when Janos has him find not only a love nest but a lover for a German officer and when he smuggles a vicious man, who turns out to be a right-wing assassin, from Czechoslovakia to Paris. Extremely uneasy with dealing so often with those who are clearly the enemies of Hungary—not to mention France—Morath must trust that his uncle knows what he is doing.
With all the ambiguous shadings in Kingdom of Shadows, Furst’s method resembles le Carré’s labyrinthine maneuvers. He wants to avoid simplistic black-and-white moralizing and to present a literary approach to espionage in which the plot evolves by indirection. As in Furst’s previous novels, however, this approach can be taken too far. It is not always easy to determine what Morath is up to or even where he is. Not even the map depicting the Sudetenland, independent Slovakia, Ruthenia, northern Transylvania, and similar geographic designations for the period is all that helpful.
Janos tries to put Morath somewhat at his ease by explaining how they are cooperating with German officers who want to prevent the army being destroyed in a war Germany cannot win. Even seemingly insignificant acts by Morath can help Hungary’s cause: “It’s not a lone hero, crawling through the desert, trying to save the world. It’s various people, various approaches, various methods. Connections. Relationships.” Such reasoning does not stop Morath from thinking his uncle is using him and is treating him unfairly by not revealing all their machinations clearly.
These machinations lead to his being shot at while in Czechoslovakia to sketch military fortifications, seeing the aftermath of a massacre shortly afterward, being imprisoned by the Romanian secret police, escaping in a bloody rescue, smuggling into France money hidden inside a cello, and finding evidence that Hitler will invade Poland, ending hopes that the war can be avoided. Just as Janos drafts his nephew into his service, Morath involves other ordinary citizens in his cause. These include Wolfi Szubl, a salesman, and Boris Balki, a bartender who can find or arrange anything. Balki and Szubl assist with Morath’s final adventure: the rescue, from Nazi arrest in a Vienna hotel, of Kolovitzky, a Hungarian violinist turned Hollywood composer who has foolishly risked a visit home. His rescue, during which Morath...
(The entire section is 1751 words.)